(JTA) — In a surprise move, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has backed out of his appearance at a major conference of U.S. Jewish leaders in Tel Aviv, just hours before a speech that was expected to draw mass protests.
But in a sign that the conference organizers did not expect Netanyahu’s cancelation to head off the protests, Jewish Federations of North America told attendees that it was not changing the schedule of the buses bringing them from their hotels to the conference center. The group had told attendees to plan extra time to navigate streets that were expected to be thronged with protesters, including some of the 3,000 U.S. Jewish leaders in the country for the conference.
Opponents of the judiciary overhaul legislation advanced by Netanyahu’s right-wing government vowed to demonstrate against the conference because Netanyahu was scheduled to give a keynote address. They said Netanyahu should not be given a platform to argue for changes that would weaken Israel’s judiciary.
Jewish Federations of North America rejected criticism of Netanyahu’s planned appearance, noting that it always invites Israel’s elected leader to speak at its annual events. But it had also reiterated its official criticism of the judiciary legislation, praised the protesters and said it would seek to protect peaceful demonstrations that did not interfere with the conference proceedings.
“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has informed us that he is not able to appear at tonight’s event,” the group informed conference attendees early Sunday, adding, “We thank Prime Minister Netanyahu for his message of friendship between our communities and his acknowledgement of the important role North American Jewry has played in building and developing the state of Israel.”
Netanyahu’s office cited scheduling conflicts in explaining his cancelation. UnXeptable, the protest movement of Israelis living abroad, called the cancelation “one more win for the protest movement for saving the Israeli democracy.”
Some demonstrations were already taking place as the conference got underway on Sunday. A panel featuring Simcha Rothman, the right-wing member of Israel’s parliament who as the head of its law committee has advanced the judiciary reforms, was briefly interrupted by protests, then continued with protesters standing silently, according to journalists present.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who is trying to broker a compromise in the judiciary fight, will speak at the conference, which is timed to coincide with Israel’s 75th birthday. A different event timed to the anniversary last week, the World Zionist Congress, faced protests both outside and inside where it was being held in Jerusalem. Rothman was briefly cornered by protesters there before being extricated by police.
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